The Principle and Politics of Sanctuary

What to do? It is easy to feel paralyzed, and powerless, in the face of President-elect Trump’s announced intention to rain terror on immigrants and people of color with mass deportations, Muslim registration, racial profiling, and so much more. Start somewhere. For me, that has meant staring where I live, by attending my first local school board meeting. I’ve joined with other parents to make my small city’s schools into sanctuaries from federal immigration enforcement and other intrusions. It’s also meant starting where I work, joining with faculty, staff, and students to push similar policies at the university level.

Providing sanctuary offers a potent combination of practical protection, personal integrity, and political pushback. These are winnable fights that small groups of ordinary people can take on in our communities and build from there.

Consider the private home. If a federal officer knocks at my door and asks me whether there are Muslims present, I will refuse to answer, as is my right. If she asks permission to enter and look for Muslims herself, I will refuse, as is my right. It doesn’t matter if she is just doing her job as ordered by a lawfully elected boss. She has the power that the law gives her, and I have the power that the law gives me. I can choose not to enable her to abuse her power. I will not be a collaborator. Exercising my constitutional rights is as American as apple pie.

Just as I can make my home a sanctuary, we can do the same in our institutions, including state and local governments, universities, K-12 schools, and workplaces. As members of those communities, we should demand it, through the channels already open to us. Schools can choose to refuse access to their premises or their information, unless federal authorities present a valid judicial warrant to force them. Localities can choose to refuse to devote scarce local resources and authority to assisting federal enforcement. And so on.

This is not about defying federal authority. It is about taking responsibility for how we use what power we have.

Sanctuary offers a simple moral idea that draws on rich and righteous histories. It connects us to the Underground Railroad for escaped slaves, the protection offered to Anne Frank and Schindler’s List, and the 1980s religious movement to welcome Central American refugees from Cold War conflicts.

Many cities have been taking up the call, and I am proud that my local Culver City, California schools just joined them last week. It was heartening to watch students, parents, and teachers speak out, and to see how responsive leaders can be to constituents close at hand and organized well. This week, University of California President Janet Napolitano issued a strong endorsement of sanctuary principles at our University.

No doubt, strong stands for sanctuary will provoke demands for submission and all sorts of bullying. They already have, with Trump’s vague threat to cut off federal funding from localities. But this bravado rests on dubious grounds, both legally and politically. Just as the private home has long stood protected against police intrusion, so, too, are schooling and policing long recognized as zones of quintessential local control. Federal authorities have limited ability to commandeer state and local governments, even by leveraging federal funding. That, after all, was the one objection to Obamacare that succeeded in the Supreme Court.

We should act quickly, forcefully, and broadly, before Trump takes formal power and attempts to crack down and divide opposition. Legislators who sympathize with Trump’s aims may nonetheless hesitate to strip vital funding from constituents who already have taken a stand and to imperil local institutions that serve a wide swath of the population. As is so often true, there is safety in numbers and in facts on the ground.

Organizing locally to establish sanctuaries now also builds the relationships that will defend them later. Beyond that, it can develop experience with and confidence in a tactic that can apply beyond the context of immigration enforcement where it has taken root. The University of California policy, for instance, extends to noncooperation with any federal efforts to establish a Muslim registry, and the approach may also bear on Trump’s intentions to nationalize racial profiling through “stop-and-frisk” policing. More generally, when ordinary people take direct action to stop an outrage, most often it will be local governments that decide whether to stand back or to crack down, as we have seen at Standing Rock.

In addition to offering protection, incomplete as it may be, sanctuary also advances a broader political strategy for countering Trumpism. Refusing to hand over our own powers may provide the best hope for puncturing Trump’s brand of populist authoritarianism. The bully’s appeal lies partly in the spectacle and promise of unique power. “I alone can fix it,” Trump bragged. This explains why he flaunts his disregard for all rules, boasts of sexual assault with impunity, smirks about getting away with murder. Begging for mercy and moderation only reinforces this dynamic.

Instead, exercising our power can cut Trumpism down to size. Render it ineffective, publicly so, and merely by refusing to assist unconscionable policies. This approach is doable, accessible, tangible, and has integrity. It pushes well beyond those earnest and awkward holiday dinner conversations we keep hearing about. All this goes hand-in-hand with comedy and the arts, no doubt why Trump has shown such ill humor and thin skin.

In our cities and towns, schools and universities, private homes and places of worship, what should we do? Work together to provide sanctuary, exercise the power that is ours, and refuse to become accomplices.